Wednesday, May 24, 2017

David Brooks' NY Times Op-Ed of May 23, 2017: "The Alienated Mind": an Analysis

David Brooks is the king of question begging, the assumption that something is true even though it hasn't been proven. But when one questions his breezy descriptions, they turn out to be amalgums of right-wing clich├ęs and prejudices. It has upset me for years that the New York Times gives so much valuable space to such an intellectual pretender, but it took me until last night to take one of his columns apart, as I've been tempted to do for years. Here it is.

     In Tuesday's NY Times column (May 23, 2017) “The Alienated Mind,” David Brooks takes aim at an “elite” resented by "angry voters." The problem with this elite is that it is "college educated," and that it has "found ingenious ways to make everybody else feel invisible" and then has " managed to transfer wealth upward to itself" and then "crashes the hammer of political correctness down on anybody who does not have faculty lounge views." This is a cartoon stereotype that degrades  educated, historically informed (and dare I say empathetic) members of the middle class, and then conflates them with financial elites! It makes boogie men out of reasonable, educated people, who happen not to be conservative shills for unnamed oligarchs, as Brooks is, and then confuses them with the oligarchs themselves! And the Times pays for such crap!

     Then he lands on “alienation” as a concept, like some undergraduate discovering the term for the first time, and then blames our political ills on it, elevating it to a major force on its own, giving it a separate existence from the variety of conditions that engender it, making a disease out of a symptom. Nowhere does he refer to the depredations of inequality, the flight of good jobs, the concentrating of wealth, the neglect and suffering of poor minority communities, which is equal to or worse than that of communities who were once prosperous. He tries to drum up sympathy for these white working class folks who have been betrayed by globalist corporations, focusing on their feelings of betrayal but not on those who betrayed them, but rather on those whom they are duped into blaming. Meanwhile, the Republican policies these poor benighted alienated white working class voters vote for just continue to slam them. But you’d never learn this from a Brooks column.

    No. Brooks' column is actually a summary and popularization of an extended article by Yuval Levin in the conservative quarterly (available on line) Modern Age. He cites Levin on the subject of alienation, who opines that "on the right" it tends to a “desire for purity—to exclude the foreign,” while "on the left" it fosters a “desire for conformity—to squelch differing speakers and faiths.” Full stop. The Wise Man hath spoken; following the rather abstract Levin, Brooks has dispensed his characteristic dyad, which stands in for philosophical reflection or sociological observation. Except that it’s pure baloney. How about the the tendency on the right to blame the Other: the immigrants taking “our” jobs and getting a free ride without paying taxes (which they do), the “elite” bogeymen disdaining them for their ignorance in allowing themselves to be duped by wealthy oligarchs who know how to dangle racist illusions in front of their noses? And he takes impolite student protest to shut down appearances by right-wing purveyors of prejudice as a “desire for conformity,” when the protesters see such people as atavistically bringing us back to a time when prejudicial stereotypes were accepted as truth.

    Brooks’ prescription? To “revive a living elite patriotism.” Yeah. Well, if he actually asked the real elites, the financial oligarchs, they’re the most patriotic of all—at least they use patriotism as a mask for their self-interested support of military spending, which is where most conventional patriotism leads these days. How about rooting out structural racism in housing patterns and health care delivery? Would this be considered “patriotic”? In all fairness, he does seem to be advising his Republican back-benchers to be more open to compromise. But does he realize that the institutionalized intransigence of Republicans nowadays comes from a fear of being attacked from the farther right by “purer” intransigents, who happen to be bankrolled by the Koch Brothers and their Tea Party pet project? Has he made this connection? Now, there are some elite actors he would do well to target—but nary a word, of course.

    In the end he prescribes “moral realism” to fight alienation. What a good idea! Why not print up pamphlets and distribute them widely telling people how to be more morally realistic? Just be as wise as David Brooks! Discard your “lazy cynicism” and “self-righteous despair”! (Why, I had become quite attached to mine, Mr. Brooks! But I’m so glad you informed me that they were counter-productive!) Adopt an attitude of “pessimistic hopefulness.” Aha! I’m so glad you let me know that that’s the answer! You’ve solved the country’s problems! Let’s all be “grateful for the institutions our ancestors left us, and filled with cheerful confidence that they can be reformed to solve present needs.” Seriously! He writes this!

    It sounds like lazy complacency with the status quo rather than Brooks' “lazy cynicism.” What about accelerating inequality and its consequences in shortening life-spans? What about the exploitation by our banks of our children in college? What about a ballooning military, sucking up resources that would be better spent on people: health care, education & infrastructure? How do we dislodge these vested interests, which by the way, also undermine our democratic elections, insuring that their supporters remain in power? How do we adopt an attitude of "cheerful confidence" in the face of these seemingly intractable trends? People like you, your NY Times editors, and most of your readers don’t even realize how the system is structured to maintain the parasitic and infinitely greedy forces in power. But you assure us that we should adopt a “cheerful confidence that [our institutions] can be reformed to solve present needs.” Sounds like you’re working for the oligarchs, Mr. Brooks. Just let ‘em alone, and everything’ll work out just fine. And by the way, that's the contemporary corporate definition of “freedom”: just leave ‘em alone, detax and let them self-regulate, and then let the rest of us, the 99%, just get sicker, stupider and dirtier.

1 comment:

  1. This is an amazing recounting of events and panels at The Left Forum. I'm disappointed, however, that you seem to bury the information about the outrageous banning/canceling of panels from The Forum by a very few decision makers. I wish there had been or will be more public outrage around this issue.

    Bernadette Evangelist